LUL News Feature
On the day that LUL club, Soho FC, take on LGBT-friendly football giants, Village Manchester FC, in the Gay Football Supporters’ League cup semi-final, LUL News talks to their coach Connor Natella about his background in football and what he likes about his current club.
LUL News: Tell us about how you got involved in football. Do you do any other sport?
Connor: I first got involved in coaching from a pretty young age. I started at my local youth club in Kent, working with an U12 team when I was 14. I was way too young and I look back now and cringe at a few things, but it certainly gave me a start point in the game and it was where I caught the coaching bug. I hadn’t been a great player as a kid and the move into coaching came at a pretty good time for me to stay in the game.
I pursued my coaching passion at AFC Bournemouth when I was 17 as an apprentice football coach in the Community department. I was lucky in a sense that the club was in a pretty bad position when I joined. I think it meant I progressed a bit quicker than I would have somewhere else. Within a couple of years I was a full-time football development officer and working most weeknights in the Academy with games at the weekends – so pretty full on. You had to be very committed to push on there but it was an amazing learning experience for me to work with some of the coaches that have achieved so much.
Away from the game I like to keep fit and a keen runner, although recent injuries have got in the way of that, and weekends usually involve a night out in Clapham (not before games of course…).
When did you join Soho?
I first joined Soho in pre-season but I’d known a bit about them beforehand. I spoke to Gez (manager) at one of the Friday sessions he runs at Coram’s Fields and he convinced me to take a few sessions as the team found its feet again following some new arrivals, and here I am still running sessions six months on! I don’t often play unfortunately due to injury (I fractured my skull last year) but when I do I like to play midfield.
Were you involved in another club before Soho?
Before Soho, I was the Head Coach at New Milton Town FC, who play in the Wessex League in Hampshire. We had two good seasons there and I worked with some fantastic young players. I’d say my time at the club was definitely the best time I had as a coach. It was massively challenging but I think we thrived on that. In the end the manager, Cal Brooks, got approached by Poole Town who have aspirations of playing in the league, so he had to go. I took on the manager’s role but I wasn’t suited to it at all, definitely more of a coach than a manager!
Since then I took a year out and watched as many games as I could and recently I was working in a development centre in Hampshire to keep my hand in. I always think you can study the game as much as you like but if you aren’t out on the training pitch on a regular basis it’s tough to really improve as a coach.
I’ve heard you used to work with Eddie Howe at Bournemouth. Could you say something about that?
‘Work with’ definitely goes too far, I’m afraid. Eddie was in his first stint the manager when I started my coaching journey at AFC Bournemouth and he was the club to be honest. The fans were in awe of him. He’d been a good player for the club and had stepped up to be a manager at a time when the club was looking like it was going bust, so he couldn’t do any wrong at that point. He got the club promoted to League 1 and it was amazing to be around the club at that time, it felt like it was really going places.
At that point I hadn’t really had any interaction with him other than seeing his effect on the place. I was learning from coaches like Steve Cuss, Matty Holmes and Shaun Brooks every day which was incredible. Their passion for the sport and support for young coaches was great. I was a quick learner but probably a bit too impatient at times.
When Eddie left for Burnley and Lee Bradbury took over, that coincided with myself going full-time, so I really felt a bit more part of the club then. I’d watch Lee’s sessions whenever I could and take notes before doing my own versions with the academy players. I was a young coach and to be around the first-team environment and learn from it was crazy when you look back. I don’t know if you’d get that now.
When Lee left Shaun Brooks and Paul Groves took over, they were both great coaches but unfortunately their player recruitment didn’t help them. They were only given 12 games before Eddie’s comeback.
Eddie came back when the club were in League 1. I’d known for a couple of days it was happening but it was still a great feeling to see him back in the dugout – he lifted the whole club just by turning up! I remember going into the changing room before his first game. We were playing unbeaten league-leaders Tranmere at home and seeing his message to the players was “Go and make a statement to the league” written on the tactics board. I don’t recall the score, but we won the game and the rest was history.
I left at the end of the season after watching the club get into the Championship to pursue a career in Non-League. It was an amazing experience to watch a top-class coaching team such as Eddie’s work on a daily basis, but I’d definitely say I learned more from Steve Cuss, Matty Holmes and Callum and Shaun Brooks, as well as the other coaches around the club at the time. They were all great coaches in their own way and I like to think I’ve taken a little of each style into my own coaching.
Why did you decide to join Soho? What was it about them that attracted you?
To be honest, I didn’t know a huge amount about the London Unity League and I was looking for a local club to get my fitness back. My injury meant I couldn’t really play games but I was keen to train. I only moved to London nine months ago so I was still finding my feet. I came across the club on Twitter and got invited down to a Friday session. It seemed pretty relaxed from the outside so I wasn’t too worried about whether I’d be terrible after not kicking a ball in over a year!
What would you say is good about the club?
I think as we have gone on we have realised that we are trying to find a balance between creating a comfortable space to play football and a team that’s competitive in the league. I think everybody knows that the coaching and the competitiveness is a factor in what makes the club a great one to play for but it’s only one of many. A lot of effort goes into arranging social events and welcoming new players which contributes to the feel of the club.
One of the best things, in my opinion, is the mixed ability nature. I’m used to coaching players who’ve played at higher levels and I think sometimes as a coach that can be a bit safe, by working with players who haven’t played much before and are just looking for somewhere to start and to feel part of something, that’s been a really positive challenge for me to adapt to. In this club it doesn’t matter about your ability or your experience of the game, everyone can take part and I think that’s a really positive thing.
Is there anything else you want to say about you or Soho FC?
I think this season has been a difficult one for us at times as it hasn’t happened for us in terms of results, or at least not as often as we’d have liked. I will look to go back into non-league coaching at some point but I see this team as a really worthwhile pursuit at the moment and it would be great to have another season. I trust the manager to get the balance right in terms of finding players and keeping hold of the ones we have, the committee to continue their great work off the pitch and hopefully, I can play a small part in a successful season next year.
If you want to attend today’s (Saturday 24th March, 2018) Gay Football Supporters’ League cup semi-final, at 2pm, head to ‘The Hub’ in London’s Regent’s Park and either check the fixtures board for the pitch or look out for the players in orange!